A volcano erupts in Spain – and challenges notions of recovery

Daniel Roca/AP
Lava flows from a volcano in La Palma, Spain. A month after it first erupted, experts say, it has run only half its course, leaving homeless residents in limbo.

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Cumbre Vieja, the powerful volcano engulfing the Spanish Canary Islands, is only halfway through its course, experts say, and no one can predict when it might end. It’s creating a unique set of challenges for first responders and local authorities who are rushing to address immediate needs while the longer-term consequences mount.

For residents in neighborhoods already destroyed, it could be years before the ground cools enough to rebuild, and many wonder if they will ever feel confident enough to return. Amid so many unknowns, islanders are relying on the solidarity of local charities, churches, military, and neighbors who are scrambling to preserve a sense of home, whatever form that takes.

As of this week, the Red Cross has received €3.3 million in donations for immediate needs, but they say this relief work is unlike anything they have done before. “Our aid efforts are completely different this time,” says Miguel Angel Reyes, a technical coordinator for the Red Cross in La Palma. “With a forest fire or flood, people can go back home after about a week. With this type of emergency, it’s been a month and we can’t do anything to stop the volcano.”

Why We Wrote This

Natural disasters always upend lives, but a volcano in La Palma on Spain’s Canary Islands continues to erupt with no end in sight. It is challenging recovery efforts – and residents’ notions of home.

In the first few days after the Cumbre Vieja volcano erupted, Roberto Leal frantically helped his family evacuate their homes in a rush to escape the spewing gray plumes of smoke and rivers of lava engulfing his isle on the Spanish Canary Islands. But soon, it swallowed up his own lifetime of memories too.

“I always thought it was going to stop,” he says. “But then the town church fell, my uncle’s house, my parents’ house, my brother’s and sister’s houses. On the 20th day, mine fell as well.”  

Now, he and his extended family have been dispersed across the island in temporary housing – with little idea of when they might return if ever. “Where will we go for Christmas? New Year’s?” he asks, his eyes welling.

Why We Wrote This

Natural disasters always upend lives, but a volcano in La Palma on Spain’s Canary Islands continues to erupt with no end in sight. It is challenging recovery efforts – and residents’ notions of home.

He joins some 7,000 people who have been forced from their homes since the La Palma volcano shot up from flat ground on Sept. 19. It has since destroyed more than 1,900 homes and more than 2,000 acres of land, including 600 acres of banana, grape, and avocado plantations – the island’s primary economic resource along with tourism. 

Experts estimate that Cumbre Vieja is only halfway through its course, and no one can predict when it might end. On Wednesday and Thursday the area around the volcano registered 124 earthquakes. It’s creating a unique set of challenges for first responders and local authorities who are rushing to address immediate needs while the longer-term consequences mount. 

Colette Davidson
Roberto Leal, posing for a photo on Oct. 15, 2021, lost his house in Todoque, La Palma, after lava flattened his entire town. He and his family members have lost eight homes and several banana plantations.

It could be years before the ground cools enough to rebuild, and many whose homes have been swallowed up wonder whether they will ever feel confident enough to return. Amid so many unknowns, islanders are relying on the solidarity of local charities, churches, the military, and neighbors who are scrambling to preserve a sense of home, whatever form that takes.

“Completely different this time”

La Palma has seen a swell of volunteerism and donations since the volcano first erupted, some organizing with the Twitter handle #MasFuertesQueElVolcan, or “Stronger Than the Volcano.” People with second homes or extra rooms are offering their beds; hotels, recreation centers, and schools are also coming forward.

The Red Cross has received €3.3 million (about $3.8 million) in donations for immediate needs, but they say this relief work is unlike anything they have ever done before. “Our aid efforts are completely different this time,” says Miguel Angel Reyes, a technical coordinator for the Red Cross in La Palma. “With a forest fire or flood, people can go back home after about a week. With this type of emergency, it’s been a month and we can’t do anything to stop the volcano.”

Gen. Fernando Morón Ruiz of the Spanish army, which has provided shelter and emergency services to displaced people, says that “the situation of uncertainty and leaving everything behind has been very intense. We want to give people a sense of control and support. When they come (to shelter in army barracks) they can share the same experience as others, and this has provided a sense of resilience against fate and a bit of hope.”  

General Morón’s soldiers are also working in the exclusion zone, removing ash that has piled up on roofs to heights of 1 ½ feet, to prevent their collapse.  

Sergio Perez/Reuters
Fernando Quindos, a volunteer with NGO World Central Kitchen, gives bottles of water to Spanish Civil Guard officers at a security checkpoint in a controlled area in La Laguna, as the Cumbre Vieja volcano continues to erupt on the Canary Island of La Palma, Spain.

“What can we learn from this?”

The residential hillsides in Tajuya, about three miles from the mouth of the volcano, offer a direct view of Cumbre Vieja, and full audio too. Deafening booms, as the volcano spits out rocks, are incessant. Piles of black ash collect on top of Sandra Riccoboni’s newly planted potato patches and leave a fine dust on her beloved orange trees.  

“It’s horrid, like having a plane inside my head. … Sometimes the volcano goes berserk and the house starts to shake,” says Ms. Riccoboni, who has lived in her home for nearly 50 years. “You start crying at night, thinking maybe it’s your time to go. I’ll have nowhere to live. … I’m a bit old to start over again.”  

This sense of control lost is something the Rev. Domingo Guerra is trying to help residents in the area sort through. Since the eruption, his church in Tajuya has become a meeting point, remaining open 24/7. Donations have poured in from around the world, and local churches are collaborating to distribute clothes and personal care items and provide floor space to sleep.

“There’s so much frustration. People are perplexed about what to do now,” says Mr. Guerra. “Humans aren’t owners of the earth, we’re the caregivers, and things like this make us seem even smaller. God is asking us, what can we learn from this? What do we really need in order to be happy?”   

That question is measured in the tangible and intangible. In all, Mr. Leal’s family lost eight homes, as well as several banana plantations on which they had relied to make a living. The cedar chest that Mr. Leal’s grandfather handcrafted for his grandmother decades ago was too heavy to carry and had to be left behind, consumed by fiery crimson lava and pulled down the hillside into the Atlantic. 

Some residents already have return on their minds, though. Local architect Jose Henry Garritano Pérez, for example, knows what he wants to do once Cumbre Vieja finally calms down, and he says history gives him hope.

Sweeping a fine layer of ash from his desk, he pulls up a photo on his mobile phone of the land where the San Juan volcano struck the south of the island in 1949. It’s now covered in leafy green trees, growing on soil spread over the lava.

Colette Davidson
Architect Jose Henry Garritano Pérez, from the town of Todoque, lost his house as a result of the Cumbre Vieja lava flows. He thinks it will be possible to rebuild on that same land in the future.

Mr. Garritano Pérez has the same hopes for Todoque, the neighborhood where his home was among the many flattened by lava from Cumbre Vieja. He is working with architects across Spain to create plans for a natural park, comprising residential areas and agricultural patches currently covered in lava. He says that once it cools, homes can be built and fresh soil can be laid down. 

“We can do it again”

“We already live on lava. Towns [in Tenerife] like Garachico are built on lava. People once said that was impossible, but nothing is impossible,” he says. “If for some reason people don’t want to live there again, we can at least do this for agriculture to bring money to the island. Whatever happens, we need to do this.”  

Not all experts agree. Some geologists say the ultimate thickness of the hardened lava will determine whether it takes weeks or years to fully cool. Others say the magma will need to be broken up by dynamite in order for the soil to be usable again.

For local photographer Jonatan Rodríguez, the notion of home is comforting in this time of uncertainty. Mr. Rodríguez says he cried last week as he locked up his house in La Laguna, the latest town to receive an evacuation order, not knowing if he’d ever see it again.  

He says if he has to start over and build a new house, he will, but it’s the daily routine he’ll miss most – going out to get bread, saying hello to neighbors in the street, playing racquetball with friends. Still, he’s confident the people of La Palma can restore what has been lost.   

“We have a beautiful expression in the Canary Islands: ‘We’re made of sea salt and lava,’” says Mr. Rodríguez. “I think if the lava takes my house, I’ll rebuild on the land. We’ve built on a volcano before, and we can do it again.”

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